No Longer Asking About Their Mother

Last weekend, Egyptian soldiers fatally shot a 7-year-old girl and a man in his thirties, both of them Sudanese refugees who were trying to cross into Israel. Since the start of the year, 16 African refugees were killed trying to cross the border. L., 8, and her sister, M., 7, are quite familiar with the shooting at the border. At the beginning of the year, they tried to enter Israel from Egypt, with their mother and two brothers (aged 1 and 3). They came under Egyptian fire, but the girls managed to escape and cross into Israel. But their mother and brothers were caught - and their whereabouts are unknown.

Today, L. and M. are living with other girls their age at a shelter for refugees located in an Arab village in the North. The girls' parents are originally from Eritrea, but they fled to Sudan. The family unit broke up this February; while the father stayed in Sudan, the mother, P.A., and her four children headed for Egypt in an attempt to reach Israel. After making it to Egypt, P.A. decided to rest for a few days. With a group of refugees, the mother and her four children tried to cross into Israel on February 27.

P.A. let her daughters cross first. As she was clutching her baby and holding her 3-year-old son by the hand, the Egyptian border police opened fire on the refugees. P.A. was arrested, but her daughters continued on, crossing the border alone. According to other refugees who were part of the group trying to enter Israel, she managed to shout, "look after my daughters." Since then there has been no trace of her.

After crossing the border, the refugees found shelter on Har Zion Street in South Tel Aviv. The two little girls cried bitterly. Two days later, staffers with the African Refugees Development Center (ARDC), which operates the shelter, discovered the girls. The ARDC then contacted Mesila (a Hebrew acronym for Aid and Information Center for the Foreign Community), run by the Tel Aviv municipality.

"We were shocked by the terrible scene, which will probably be etched permanently in my memory," says Tamar Schwartz, the center's director. "I found two beautiful small girls, neglected, their heads bowed, with fear in their eyes, sitting next to each other on mattresses, trembling and frightened. It was obvious that they were in a state of severe trauma; they refused to eat, didn't talk and didn't dare separate or move. I don't recall any other case of such young girls crossing the border alone."

Schwartz says that at some point, the two men who had volunteered to watch over the girls in the shelter had stopped taking care of them. "They said that they don't have any money and are unable to care for girls to whom they are not related. It was clear that we needed to take immediate action." After consulting with municipal welfare officials, on March 5 the girls were transferred to a shelter for female refugees in the North. "There are refugee women and children there, everyone speaks their language and they are familiar with the culture there," Schwartz explains.

'We drank Pepsi and got a candy'

The shelter is run by a woman named Rita. Up until two years ago, the place served as a shelter for abused women; today it houses 12 women from Sudan and Eritrea as well as 18 children.

Overlooking the pastoral view from the shelter, L., the older sister, recalls the night they crossed the border. Her account is unusually mature. "They fired shots and Mom fell," she says. "I was among the group, but I felt alone. Everyone ran. Someone helped my sister and I felt like I was alone, trailing. I tried to run, but I was standing still." She stops talking for a moment, recreating her memories about arriving in Israel. "A policeman came and lifted me up, over a fence. I was scared because I thought he was going to kill me. When he lowered me to the ground, I started crying."

The women in the shelter, whose husbands are held at Ketziot Prison, are quiet as the girl recounts her experience. L. continues: "There were two men who looked after my sister and I. I remembered that we went on a bus at night. It was raining a lot; our clothes were light and it was cold. We arrived in Tel Aviv and the men bought us shawarma and we drank Pepsi and got a candy."

When she talks about her stay at the shelter on Har Zion Street, near the old Central Bus Station, she begins to stutter. "I was afraid in the shelter," she says. "There wasn't always food and I was hungry. I was afraid the police would come and take us. That was all the adults talked about. They told us not to leave the shelter, so the policemen wouldn't take us. I was afraid the police would separate my sister and me."

"When they first arrived here," Rita says, "they didn't stop asking 'where's Mommy.' But that stopped after two days; now they don't mention her. Like all the refugee children, they are afraid to sleep in the dark or be alone in the dark. It is obvious that they are severely traumatized, but they also exhibit amazing survival skills - they adapted quickly to the place, became very independent, integrated into the school in the Arab village, seem happy and overall, they function like any other child their age."

"We try not to bother them or make them sad by asking if they miss Mom," says Jumana Talhami, a Christian Arab living in the village who helps run the shelter. "Since their arrival, there has been a noticeable improvement in their condition. One of the female refugees cares for them as if she were their mother, and they are among women and children from their community every day. They embrace everyone - it's obvious that they need a lot of warmth and love." When L. is asked what she wants most, she doesn't hesitate, answering: "For Mommy to come here. I miss Mommy." Little M. stops playing with her friends for a minute and joins her sister, "I also want Mommy to come," she says.

"We expect the state to make a humanitarian gesture, granting the girls legal status and trying to find their mother in Egypt to reunite the family in Israel," says Rita. "It's an unusual and tragic case that obligates the state to assist, and urgently. It's impossible to send the girls to Egypt or Sudan, places where they'll be in danger." Schwartz adds, "It's an exceptional case and it's heartbreaking. Up until now, we have encountered refugees aged 13 and above, who are roaming around Israel alone, without their parents. But these girls are very young, and they were literally torn from their mother at the border in a chilling and cruel manner. They are afforded shelter and protection, but the state must act to unite them with their mother, who is in Egypt. Family reunification will not affect the character of the Jewish people and will not threaten Israel demographically."

In recent months, both the Knesset and the government have been working on laws to define policy on African refugees and infiltrators. Not long ago, a bill sentencing refugees from Darfur to five years and other African refugees to seven years in jail passed its first reading in the Knesset, and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's proposed amendment to the Citizenship Law contains a section that tries to prevent the High Court from intervening in the cases of infiltrators.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in response that it obtained documents assuring the girls temporary legal status, meaning they cannot be expelled until their case is fully reviewed. They have no official status in Israel. The state is the only entity that can provide them with permanent legal status. With regard to a possible family reunification, the office stated: "The UN High Commissioner in Israel contacted the Commission in Cairo and the Commission in Geneva in order to locate the mother and the other children and arrange for all to meet. So far, it is unclear if the meeting has indeed taken place. As far as is known, the mother and the two boys are imprisoned in Egypt. The goal is to obtain the mother's release and reunite her with her daughters in Israel."

The Interior Ministry declined to comment on the question of whether the girls would be able to obtain legal standing in Israel, stressing that it is not the ministry's job to arrange family reunification for infiltrators into Israel and their families outside Israel, unless UN officials determined otherwise. At the same time, it was noted, "The head of the population administration, Yaakov Ganot, plans to appeal to the UN with a request to reunite children and parents, in the place where they are."

The Ministry further clarified: "Israel's moral obligation to help refugees fleeing genocide and other humanitarian tragedies is one of our guiding principles. Israel is doing everything it can to ensure proper treatment of asylum seekers, while at the same time trying to defend its borders and the safety of its citizens. The matter of asylum seekers infiltrating Israel is a complex issue being handled at the highest levels between Israel and Egypt.